Cloud computing, with services such as Salesforce and Google Mail and Docs, is easily my favorite internet technology. The potential for scalable, affordable services online really excites me, and I definitely plan to enter that sector of industry when I get my degree. But cloud computing is fraught with pitfalls, too, as a few recent data disasters have shown.
- When my data is in the cloud, I can access it from everywhere. This becomes increasingly important the more devices you have. When I want to see my email from my personal computer, my iPod Touch, netbook, my lab computer, my eReader, and my phone, it’s a lot more convenient to keep that data in the cloud, rather than having to manually sync each device. This property has saved me more than once, too. When I took a train to New York City last spring and found that I had forgotten my ticket confirmation number in the rush to get out the door, I was able to pull it up on a public internet terminal and still catch my train.
- Cloud data is more secure than local data because it is backed up on someone else’s servers. If my office burns down, I’m still going to be able to access my email, and if the server goes down, there will be a dedicated team to fix the problem.
- Cloud computing is necessary for software as a service (SAAS) products, which can be very scalable and very profitable. When Salesforce gains a new client, they don’t have to come out and do a complicated database installation or train local IT on how to implement their product on local servers, or even make sure all the users’ terminals have the same operating system. The software is in the cloud and ready to go; all the local users need is a browser to access the database.
- The cloud has also ushered in an era of free applications such as Google Docs, which not only competes with expensive office suites but also enables easy document sharing: you don’t have to upload your presentation to send to your coworkers if your presentation already exists online. These programs are easy to use because there is no installation, and they’re compatible with almost all computers because they work through a browser.
- Your data might not be as safe as it sounds. Last month, as Microsoft performed an update on the servers that host data for T-Mobile Sidekick users, something went horribly wrong and all data in the cloud was lost. I don’t own a Sidekick, but I would have been outraged if this happened to me. The worst part is that there really wasn’t anything Sidekick users could do about it. While Microsoft “worked round the clock” to restore the lost information, they couldn’t possibly restore everything. Backups can fail. No server is 100% safe. So while your data might stand a better chance in the cloud, the more backups you have, including local backups, the safer you are.
- If the company you trust with your data goes down, you might lose it. Yahoo announced in April that it would close its free web-hosting site, Geocities. Last week every Geocities site officially became unavailable. While Yahoo gave plenty of warning in advance, it still hurts to find out that your website, something you consider your property, is going to be shut down no matter what you do. I’m sure plenty of Geocities users never had the chance to save their data. Whenever you upload content to 3rd party servers, you put your data in their hands, and there is always a danger that they will delete it without your permission.
- The flip side to the argument that 3rd parties will ignore your data is that they will pay attention to your data. Online banking is a form of cloud computing, because the bank offers a virtualized resource as a service over the internet. That’s great, but there is huge pressure on the bank to make sure I’m the only one who can see that data and manipulate it. Likewise, if I send confidential email, I trust Google Mail not to let its employees or anyone else read it without my permission, but neither I nor they can absolutely guarantee it will never happen. There is always a danger of unsecured data with cloud computing.
- Cloud applications are primarily accessed through browsers, but browsers vary in terms of what technologies they support. While modern browsers like Firefox and Google Chrome adhere to web standards, the browser that dominates the market, Internet Explorer, sometimes makes its own rules, which web developers spend lots of time and money trying to stay ahead of. SAAS companies take a risk because they cannot guarantee the browser their client uses will be compatible with their software. Even scarier is the idea that Microsoft might decide that it doesn’t like the idea of Google Docs competing with its office suite and makes Internet Explorer incompatible with Google’s product.
So while cloud computing is exciting because of its scalability and versatility, it is also dangerous because it puts personal data into the hands of 3rd parties. I still think, however, that as people start using more and more devices in addition to personal computers on a regular basis, companies that utilize a cloud architecture to deliver their products will be the most successful.